At the end of my first day at General Synod for ten years, it felt as though I had been there about a week, rather than just an afternoon and evening. Time goes more slowly for two main reasons: either because things are detailed and boring; or because things are intense and exciting. Both can be found in any session of Synod. A number of the items would be reported in The Week’s regular column ‘Boring but important.’ But at least an equal number involve engaging in vital issues which generate vigorous and passionate debate.
Three things stood out for me from the first day. The first might seem surprising—it was Evening Prayer after the formal business of the day, taken from the Book of Common Prayer. To encounter the profound and straightening theology of the BCP evening collects after nearly five hours of talking and debate felt like coming across a lush oasis, in the midst of the desert of activity, information and superficiality which has laid waste much of modern culture, and to be plunged head first into its clear and deep waters.
The second highlight was the encounter with many friends and colleagues from every part of ministry over the years. I realised that, coming back to Synod 15 years after first attending, I have spent quite a bit of the intervening time swimming around the fairly small pond that is the Church of England. As a result, I have met quite a few of the other fish and got to know many of them well. It was great to renew old acquaintances—but to start making new ones too. I feel very heartened to find that there are many fascinating, able and inspiring people here, and the next five years will be very challenging and stimulating, of that I have no doubt.
The third highlight was listening to Justin Welby’s Presidential Address to the Synod and response to question. (Note to the reader: this is not an exercise in sycophancy now that I am on Archbishops’ Council!). Questions are a regular feature of each session to Synod, and are an opportunity for anyone to raise awkward issues of anyone else. There were a couple of questions to Justin about the Primate’s meeting which would have looked to most like barbed weapons, lobbed across the floor of the chamber, designed to inflict maximum damage. But he embraced these questions as friends, welcomed the challenges, and thanked the questioners. Some have assessed the Archbishop as a consummate politician—but here he came over as a careful pastor, sidestepping the temptation to be drawn into a binary conflict, and living out his deep conviction about reconciliation in relationships.
The other half of this was the Presidential Address itself, which you can either watch or read for yourself. It was a striking, challenging and unapologetic exposition of the process of and statement from the Primate’s gathering—despite the misreporting of most of it in the national press.
The spin included such elements as saying that the Primates had had their phones removed, and that they were being treated as children. Even some seasoned journalists believed this and printed it as fact. It became quite a joke among us, with people waving their phones at me from time to time to indicate that my powers were limited. Neither were they treated as children. Secretary General, sit up and keep your hands still. [Laughter]
Justin located the process very clearly in the history of the development of the Anglican Communion, demonstrating how all the processes were in clear continuity with what had gone before. Yet at the heart of their time together was a profound theological and spiritual reality.
We washed each other’s feet and each prayed a blessing on the one who had washed our feet, before washing the feet of other Primates; a great contrast to what is often portrayed as the conflicts within the Communion. Many of us were moved to tears. [This] sets before us the reality of the Anglican Communion. It is the very work of God inspired by the Spirit, full of fallible human beings who must confess their sins and who require the comforts of the Word and the hope of the Sacraments and the example of the Saints and the shepherding of those called by God, however weak they may be, into leadership, if we are to be to the world the symbols of unity, which are our calling and purpose, and which will enable us to proclaim more confidently the Good News of Jesus Christ.
In the last part of the Address, the Archbishop reflected on the dynamics of order, freedom and human flourishing, stimulated by a chapter written by Tim Jenkins when Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge, in the book Anglicanism: The Answer to Modernity. Justin summarised Jenkins observations about the relation of these three:
Disaster has come whenever one element has overcome the others to an excessive degree. A hunger for power, masquerading as order, has very often overcome freedom, and neglected human flourishing. Order is essential, but it exists to assure foot washing and love, not domination. Certainly after the Reformation, and the religious wars that dominated Europe for the following 100 years or more, it was a sense of perverted order that led to the appalling cruelty which is almost without parallel in Europe until the 20th Century. The Church, confronted by modernity, sought power through order rather than human flourishing or freedom: it was out of these tensions that Anglicanism emerged, and from 1867 and the first Lambeth Conference developed a relational model of authority.
The Church in its order is meant to encourage the freedom in Christ that is promised, and human flourishing that is the vision of the kingdom of God. When the balance is wrong, and even more so when we feel threatened, like a ship with a dysfunctional crew heading for the rocks, different groups all strive to grab the wheel so that, as they see it, they may demonstrate that they and only they know the way to avoid disaster.
This is a powerful appeal, and the attraction to prioritise human flourishing seems an important protect against both the abuse of order and the indulgence of freedom. But is it the ultimate measure of what is good? I wonder if we need to go further. John Twisleton, from Chichester Diocese, offers a challenging review of the book as a whole, and Jenkin’s chapter in particular.
In the most provocative and concluding essay Timothy Jenkins presented Anglicanism as a Christian tradition offering both order and freedom yet subordinate to the end of human flourishing. He wrote of territorial embeddedness and conversational mode as distinctives of an Anglicanism, which serves human flourishing, which we call salvation, or the Kingdom of God.
The last sentence reveals the rather this-worldly nature of the book. Is salvation actually identical with human flourishing? Only in a transcendent view of humanity – and the book is weak on that to say the least, though not as weak as modernism, it has to be admitted!
Anglican pragmatism looks for what works and helps communities to flourish – but there are Anglican principles as well, not least those that witness the transcendent reality of Jesus Christ and applaud the countercultural challenge of scripture and tradition. Although the essays contain some references to Christianity as counter cultural the overall tenor is of a faith that engages with the culture by going with the flow.
Anglicanism is by nature inclusive and as such very comfortable about reasoned dialogue within a postmodern culture. To stay robust though it needs fresh consciousness of the wondrous momentum of the Christian tradition as a whole of which it is but part in space and time.
I think here Twisleton touches on a great paradox of Christian faith. In Morning Prayer at the start of the session we sang of Jesus, hungry and thirsty in the desert, and proclaimed our willingness to ‘suffer with him’. It has been quipped that, in the Old Testament, Proverbs says ‘Do this and you will be blessed’ to which Ecclesiastes replies ‘I did, and I wasn’t’. Jesus teaches his disciples in Mark 10 that they will be blessed when they forsake the comforts and securities normally associated with human flourishing. The Beatitudes look like a very indirect way to be ‘blessed’. And Paul, and James, and John in Revelation—all the writers in the NT—assume as evident that suffering and hardship are the way to wholeness. Our faith, according to 1 Peter, is so precious that it is like gold refined by fire—which cannot feel very flourishing to the gold itself as it goes through the process.
The paradox is this: humans only flourish as God intends when human flourishing is the penultimate, but not the ultimate goal of human living, both in the ordering of obedience to God’s commands and the radical freedom in Christ which is strangely realised in and through this—that ultimate goal being the realisation of the kingdom of God. One of the challenges for the Church of England is whether it will stay faithful to this transcendent, rather than merely human and humanist, vision.
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